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Penn & Teller: An Interview

When the entertainment team of Penn & Teller made its Schenectady debut at Proctor’s Theater
in 1992, I interviewed both men and wrote the piece below for Albany’s alt-weekly Metroland.

– B. A. Nilsson

ONLY VERY RECENTLY has Penn Jillette referred to himself and his partner, Teller, as
magicians. “When we first started we were very hesitant to let anyone anywhere call us
magicians, because when people said ‘magic’ they pictured – and still do – a greasy guy in a tux
with a lot of birds playing bad white-boy Motown music and pushing women around. And that’s
not what we do.”

What they do do they’ll be doing at 8 PM Saturday at Proctor’s Theatre as they make their
Schenectady debut. You’ll see needles swallowed, a straightjacket escape, an almost never-
before-seen finale and the possibility that Teller won’t make it through the show.

Is it magic? “If you look the real definition of magic,” says Penn, “if you think past the image of
Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy – all it really means is doing special effects that the audience
can’t figure out. When something looks one way and is done another, that’s your definition of
irony, which is a backbone of the theater. So magic is actually a very intellectual and adult form.
It’s just that over the past fifty years, it’s been moved to the barrooms and it hasn’t really
developed like the other art forms. I mean, Houdini was not a big star for magic. He was a
superstar of his day. He was Bruce Springsteen. That’s what people forget. They start thinking,
well, Copperfield is good for a magician – that’s like a Special Olympics type thing.”

“So we didn’t call ourselves magicians so people wouldn’t think we were doing dopey effects
and things. We didn’t want to do condescending stuff. We wanted to do stuff for audiences that
were at least as smart as we were. Because when you’re out on stage, you’ve got people in your
audience who can fix cars, perform surgery, write a machine code – they’re out there, and you’re
kind of dick to go onstage and say, you don’t know anything because you don’t know how the
Hippety-Hop Rabbits is done. Now that we’ve been on Letterman a few times and people know
who we are, I’m much less defensive and I’ll say, okay, we’re magicians.”

The partnership dates back to 1975 and includes shows on and off Broadway, a movie (“Penn
and Teller Get Killed”), books, videotapes and many television appearances, including regular
stints on the David Letterman show where they have produced everything from blood to
cockroaches.

Penn, who is a bulky six-foot-six, is the fast-talking spokesman of the duo. Small, wiry Teller
never says a word onstage but is quite voluble otherwise. He has a Harpo Marx impishness that
is deliberately worked into the act. “Generations of people have seen silent films and silent
performers,” he says, “so that by now they invest the person who’s not speaking with a certain
kind of innocence. Which is certainly something that we play against violently. In a certain way,
I think of myself as the sinister element of the show, and it’s reinforced by things that we do. For
example, in one bit it looks like Penn is ridiculing the hell out of me – and Penn ends up with a
knife through his hand. We generally try to work it so that if there’s an action that’s actually
aggressive or dangerous, it ends up in my hands. Because Penn takes care of the aggressive and
dangerous qualities in speech, we might as well give me the physical part of it.”

A first-time viewer can be shocked to see the pair at work. Penn lulls you in with smooth,
confidence-building patter before the two of them go in for the kill. He has been likened to a
carnival barker or con man, but he decries the comparison.

“The wonderful thing about magic,” says Penn, “the wonderful thing about what we do is that
you have a completely safe zone in the theater. You can do tremendously immoral things, but
because they’re within that framework, they become moral. Lying is a horrible taboo. You should
not lie. You should always tell the truth. I believe that very strongly and try to live that as much
as I can.

“But I’ve got this framework in which I can play with all the techniques of lying and distorting
the truth and still be completely moral. It’s a very important thing to remember because there’s a
lot of this really sick aggrandizing of the con man, the rip-off artists – you get people saying,
‘These guys stole my purse and handed it off, and it’s amazing how fast and how good they
were’ – and they’re not that fast and good. You put them up against the Olympic Relay Team and
they fall on their faces. The fact is that any of the cons is really as artistically delicate and
difficult as putting a shotgun in someone’s mouth and robbing a 7-11. It’s just evil.

“Whereas it’s a fact that inside the theater you can do things that are very dark and wonderful.
We like our audience to be extremely skeptical. The more of a chip you have on your shoulder,
the better we are to watch. The idea of the con within the theater is the most wonderful thing in
the world. But outside of it – like Kreskin or somebody – it’s just a horrible thing.”

Penn and Teller can be as bloody as any Grand Guignol spectacle, but it’s a darkness all their
own. Teller even takes credit for amplifying his own love of the bizarre: “The parts of our
personality that we show on stage have become more focused over the years, and the big thing
for me has been making explicit the dark side of my character. Because that’s really all I care
about. I was raised on the Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock, and my favorite authors are
people like Poe and Borges – and Max Beerbohm when he’s turning thingsnoir.”

Yet as black as their comedy gets, it doesn’t seem to stop anyone from laughing – even as black
comedy itself seems to have fallen out of audience favor. “I have a theory about this,” Teller
says. “I believe that we possess the curse of Cassandra, who would speak the truth without
anyone believing her – that was the curse she got for not sleeping with Apollo. It’s almost as if
the darker and more noir the material we do, the funnier people think it is. We’re cursed with
some kind of likeability that enables us to do things that other performers could never get away
with. Imagine somebody else trying to get away with producing 500 cockroaches on David
Letterman’s desk.

“I think it may be that underneath it all we have a tremendous respect for the audience, and we
do really like the audience, so there isn’t any real bitterness under it. It’s just two guys who are
fascinated with this stuff that seems so exhilirating and fun.”
The Proctor’s show is part of a three-week tour that includes a mixture of their favorite routines
with a brand-new finale. “This is a little bit smaller than what we’ve done on Broadway,” says
Penn, “only in that we aren’t dropping refrigerators on our heads. But we are doing the Water
Tank which is big and – excuse me for this – splashy.”

That’s yet another of the torture-Teller routines they enjoy. It will end the first half, says Teller,
“and leave me dead. It’s always good to leave the audience up in the air about whether one of the
performers is going to make it back after intermission.”

“We’re doing the straightjacket-Teller-upside-down,” says Penn, “and the classics – we’re doing
Teller eating the needles and bringing them up threaded – and we’ll have a brand-new closing bit
that has a lot of blood. In our 18-year career, there are only two closing bits we’ve ever done.
Now we’re adding a third, which is what you’ll see in Schenectady. It’s one of the coolest things
ever written. For anyone who has any magic background, it’ll just blow you away because it
takes some standard magic technology and just turns it fuckin’ inside out.”

And there’s a coming-home of sorts for two of the team, he adds. “Our director of covert
activities, which is the guy who does all the magic stuff, Robbie Libbon, is from Schenectady.
And so is Stewart Wagner, our lighting guy. So it’s a heavy Schenectady group. Of the five
people who will be arriving from the Penn and Teller camp, a solid 40 percent are from
Schenectady.”

– Metroland Magazine, 8 October 1992